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Improving life for expats is a priority.

Byline: Nilima Pathak, Correspondent

New Delhi: AaMinister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, means business. He is all set to bring about changes in the emigration act of 1983. His intention is to hold recruiting agents accountable and put an end to the exploitation of Indian workers in the Gulf countries. Having signed social security agreements with all the European and Gulf countries except Saudi Arabia, he is determined to improve the working conditions and protect the workers' rights. Terming the laws of these countries as "really good," he said that it was unfortunate that these were sometimes not implemented properly.

Referred to as the NRI minister, Ravi takes his role as the guardian of the interests of the diaspora seriously. At the same time, he implores people to be on guard and ascertain the veracity of the unscrupulous agents who take them for a ride. Known to personally speak with Indians in trouble in the Gulf countries, he claims, he is available to them at all times.

In an exclusive interview, Gulf News spoke to Ravi on improving the working conditions for migrants.

GULF NEWS: Thousands of expatriate workers face exploitation. Their passports are held and they are underpaid. Is your ministry taking action?

VAYALAR RAVI: This matter was brought to the attention of the ministry earlier. It is true there is a practice of passports being held by the employers or sponsors. This is a ploy to control employees. And although it is the duty of the employers to get visas renewed before the expiry date, unfortunately, in many cases this is not done. It results in employees becoming illegal. Since, in many cases, this is done deliberately, the employees are then exploited and harassed.

We have been working towards solving such issues, but these things are still happening. My ministry entered into a dialogue with the UAE and other governments and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed for any exploitation to be checked. Thereafter, a proper system has been established and now workers can complain to the Indian embassy via a helpline. The embassy would then intervene and take up the matter with the labour and home ministry. And because of frequent intervention, the number of harassment cases has dropped considerably.

What do you think about the strict labour laws and ban that can be imposed in the case of employers being vindictive?

The laws in the UAE are good and implemented well. But sometimes they go in favour of the employers. After the MoU was signed, it was suggested by the UAE government that the payments to the workers be made by cheque. And we appreciated and accepted the idea.

Ever since the financial meltdown, there has been an exodus of people from the Middle East countries. Can they expect some kind of succour from the Indian government?

I wouldn't say there has been an exodus during the recession, but yes several people have returned with the hope of going back when the situation improves. We are very much concerned about the welfare of these employees. Until now, there are only some accidental insurance schemes, though we are working towards more.

Which other schemes are being planned for the welfare of the workers?

I'm planning to work out welfare schemes for those who come back to India after their contract period is over or who return after serving in the Gulf for a certain period. It's a contributory welfare scheme which we're trying to formulate. The idea has been mooted, but is pending. It couldn't take off because we couldn't get funds from the finance ministry. But I'm trying to see in what way one can create a corpus before it can be launched. This scheme is on my agenda and is a priority.

Any other issues that your ministry is working on?

Our priority is to jump on the unscrupulous and fraudulent travel agents who are cheating people, especially from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They engage in visa trade and send workers to Gulf countries, although there is no employment for them when they arrive. Also, there is a huge scarcity of masons and plumbers in India, including Kerala and its neighbouring states. We want people to be employed in these states, in whatever trade they know, on coming back from the Gulf countries. But this can only be done with the cooperation of the state governments. Then there was this announcement we made about allowing people on visit visas to seek employment for two-three months. But it is now being misused as some agents have started sending women below the age of 30 without a valid contract. We are dealing with this.

Aa

The children of expats living in the region have to apply at higher education institutions under NRI status, resulting in higher fees. Should they not be allowed to apply under the general category?

I agree that the charges are high. In fact, recently, one of the schools raised the fee so high that it was at par with medical college fees in India. It's but natural for people to get upset about it. We hope the government of the UAE will take steps to control the indiscriminate rise in school fees. Of late, the income of workers there has come down and the entire month's salary gets exhausted on house rent and children's education.

When will it be possible to grant voting rights to Indians living abroad?

The Bill on voting rights to Indian passport holders introduced in the Rajya Sabha has been pending for sometime. The report has come back from the Standing Committee and is being discussed with the Central Law Ministry. It's not a constitution amendment, but the People's Representation Act under which their names are enrolled. At present, peoples' names aren't in voters list in their village booth, but when they prove that they're working abroad, their names are bound to be enrolled. And during the elections, if they're in India, they'll be able to vote. There are certain apprehensions and people are opposing it, so it's not that simple.

Profile: A brief history Aa - Vayalar Ravi was born on June 4, 1937, to mother Devaky and father M.K. Krishnan in Alappuzha, Kerala.Aa - Ravi graduated from SB College, Alappuzha, obtaining his Masters from Maharajas College, Ernakulam and BL from Law College, Ernakulam.Aa - He is the founder-president of the Kerala Students Union, the students' wing of the Congress Party.Aa - Ravi was elected to the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram in 1971 and re-elected in 1977. -AaHe was elected to the Kerala Legislative Assembly and served as Home Minister in 1982 and was re-elected in 1987.Aa - He was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1994 and again in 2003.Aa - He is currently the Union Cabinet Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Aug 8, 2009
Words:1153
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